Donald Trump ran against himself and won. The Manhattan billionaire who for decades boasted of his lifestyle pulled off one of the most brazen pivots in American history, selling himself to American voters as a populist hero who understood their frustrations and guaranteed a blizzard of wins.
Trump did it the way he’d said he would for more than 30 years: He ignored the rules of modern politics and spoke to Americans in plain, everyday language, without massaging his words through the data-driven machinery of consultants, focus groups and TV commercials. He scoffed at ideologies, preaching a tough, blunt pragmatism. He told people what they wanted to hear: that long-lost jobs could be retrieved, that a pre-globalized economy could be restored.
Trump ran against the elites and won. He defined the election as a people’s uprising against all the institutions that had let them down and sneered at them – the politicians and the parties, the Washington establishment, the news media, Hollywood, academia, all of the affluent, highly educated sectors of society that had done well during the time when middle-class families were losing their bearings. He swore he would turn Washington upside down, that he would “drain the swamp,” and the crowds so loved the image that they would shout the words before he even opened his mouth to say them.
Trump ran against the old rules that governed how people talked about politics, and he won there too. Political experts from both parties chortled over Trump’s failure to get with the program and build a data-driven, modern campaign based on focus-group-tested TV commercials and microanalysis of voting behavior, but Trump trusted his gut and believed that his message and style would connect with how Americans now absorb the news.
More than any other major political figure in the digital era, Trump saw how social media had segregated the nation into almost wholly separate ideological and cultural camps, each with its own attitudes and its own narratives. He saw how Facebook and Twitter had blurred the line between public and private. He took advantage of that shift in culture and turned himself into a human vent, blasting the country with a stream of frustration and anger that many people had either kept to themselves or spewed about only anonymously.
The shift in how people relate to one another online dovetailed almost perfectly with Trump’s personal style – his impulsiveness, his quickness to hit back when criticized, his tendency to lash out at perceived enemies. The result was a new campaign rhetoric, a marketing breakthrough that dramatically altered the emotions and expectations of the presidential race.
Trump won because he understood that his celebrity would protect him from the far stricter standards to which politicians are normally held – one bad gaffe, and you’re done. He won because he understood that his behavior and comments only cemented his reputation as a decisive truthteller who gets things done.
Trump ran against a barrage of accusations, a near-daily drumbeat of stories.
Trump called himself a “blue-collar billionaire,” and although he had lived a fairly isolated life, working and sleeping in Trump Tower, he believed that he had so completely won the hearts of many Americans that, as he put it, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
Rejected by the elites from the very start of his career as a real estate developer in Manhattan in the 1970s, Trump had a lifetime of resentments that he had reacted to with searing attacks against his enemies and often-successful revenge plays against those who believed they were better than he. The big real estate developer families in New York had long sneered at Trump as a brash, nasty, nouveau riche intruder on a business that took pride in doing things quietly and diplomatically. The banks treated him like an out-of-control adolescent who needed to be reined in and taught a lesson. The politicians humored him, then scrambled to be by his side to catch some of his reflected fame.
Trump beat them all back, again and again, by appealing to the people, his customers, his admirers. Whether he was succeeding at building skyscrapers and casinos, or failing by going through six corporate bankruptcies, he turned again and again to show business and the media to make his case for himself to regular Americans.
From his years of appearances on network sitcoms and his 14-season run as the decisive, tough-talking CEO on NBC’s “The Apprentice,” Trump cultivated an image among middle-class Americans as a straight-shooting billionaire who had the bucks and the brass to stand up to anyone.
From the moment he rode down the escalator of Trump Tower to his beloved pink marble lobby in the summer of 2015, presenting himself to the nation as the antidote to the ideologies and allegiances of both parties – pitting himself against Republicans and Democrats alike for their cozy ties to Wall Street, Hollywood and the rest of the moneyed class – Trump claimed that his path to victory was elementary.
All he had to do, he said, was connect directly to the pains, fears and frustrations of a nation that had been smacked around by globalization, terrorism, rapid demographic change, and a technological revolution that enriched and enraptured the kids with the stratospheric SAT scores, but left millions of Americans watching their jobs fall victim to the latest apps, overseas outsourcing, robots, and a stunning shift in the nature of commerce and community.
Trump easily dispatched 16 Republican primary opponents, dismissing one after another with just the right insult – “Low-energy Jeb” for the once-reluctant Bush brother who started out as the race’s favorite; “Little Marco” for Sen. Rubio, the diminutive Floridian who always seemed to be trying too hard.
Trump relished the idea of running against Hillary Clinton, who he saw as a feisty and strong figure who was incapable of connecting with middle-class voters and who was beholden to exactly the power bases he planned to run against. He successfully took Clinton’s decades-long reputation as a shape-shifting politician whose excessively legalistic language and guarded public persona and twisted it into a searing, angry portrait of an outright criminal, “Crooked Hillary.”
Clinton’s hesitant handling of the slow-moving political train wreck over her use of a private email server when she was supposed to be using only government-supplied computers became a bonanza of an opportunity for Trump to hurl his well-honed insults. Then, when FBI director James B. Comey announced this summer that Clinton had not done anything criminal but had been “extremely careless,” and again last month when Comey shocked the country by announcing that he had reopened the emails investigation, Trump was able to ratchet up his attacks. Chants of “Lock her up!” escalated to far more severe punishments. Comey’s announcement two days before the vote that the FBI had cleared Clinton seemed to come far too late to make any difference.
As it turned out, Trump won in exactly the way he’d planned to – outperforming Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee four years ago, in places where Romney came off as a rich, distanced, aloof figure who didn’t get how middle- and working-class people were suffering. And Clinton, in Trump’s view, ran exactly the campaign he had hoped she would, focused mainly on attacking him rather than offering an alternative vision to the nation’s middle class.
Trump, according to exit poll data, earned the votes of 60 percent of white men and 52 percent of white women. And he appeared to be consolidating the GOP coalition, bringing Republicans home in the final weeks of the campaign. The exit polls indicated that he had won 88 percent of Republican votes and 78 percent of ballots cast by white evangelicals.
Clinton’s strength seemed limited to the most narrow definition of the Democratic Party – nonwhites and college-educated whites. Even though college graduates made up fully half the electorate, and Clinton did even better among that group than President Obama did four years ago, Trump’s margin among people with little or no college was a massive 39 points, a big boost over Romney’s 25-point margin four years ago.
Trump voters seemed drawn to him more because of how he positioned himself against the elites than because of his policy message. Even his most prominent position, his oft-repeated call to build a wall against Mexican immigrants, seemed not to be a priority shared by his own supporters: Exit poll data showed that a majority of voters opposed the wall idea, about 7 in 10 voters said most illegal immigrants should get a chance to become legal residents, and only a quarter of voters agreed with Trump’s call to deport everyone who is in the country illegally.
Trump organized his campaign the way he had run his businesses – rejecting modern notions about a decentralized hierarchy and sticking instead to his tight circle of loyal advisers. He chose people he knew would stand by him no matter what, rather than people with extensive experience in campaigns.
When Trump launched his campaign last year, he selected as his manager a young New Hampshire-based operative, Corey Lewandowski, who rarely made demands of Trump, but instead catered to the candidate’s instincts and tempers. Lewandowski, combative with reporters and intensely defensive of his boss, remained loyal even after he was removed in June.
Under pressure from the Republican Party, whose leaders were eager to corral Trump into a more predictable campaign, Trump eventually replaced him with veteran GOP aide Paul Manafort, whose experience could be traced back to Gerald R. Ford’s 1976 campaign and Bob Dole’s 1996 bid. Yet even Manafort found it difficult to corral Trump and keep him on script.
When Manafort was forced to step down, Trump brought in a third team, one that he told friends would “let Trump be Trump.” Campaign chief executive Stephen K. Bannon, who came aboard from the hard-right Breitbart news site, and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway tried to both harden Trump’s harshly anti-establishment message and soften his rhetoric to draw in suburban women.
Bannon saw Trump as the American equivalent of Britain’s vote earlier this year to leave the European Union – another unexpected popular uprising against the elites. Bannon believed that a Trump victory would not be the upset that the media and the political parties thought it would be, but rather as part of a worldwide revolt against globalization, the hegemony of the technology utopianists, and the arrogance of the overeducated.
Bannon brought Nigel Farage, the far right champion of Britain’s Brexit campaign, to a Trump rally and repeatedly told Trump that his candidacy was part of something bigger, a worldwide movement against elites in finance, media and politics.
Bannon pushed Trump to frame Clinton as a candidate who was not just wrong for the working class but was a “corrupt” and scheming “globalist.” Trump’s closing two-minute ad did not mention the words “Republican” or “Democrat,” but portrayed Clinton huddling with bankers and financial power brokers – many of them Jewish, which led many Jewish organizations and political leaders to accuse the Trump campaign of deploying anti-Semitic tropes.
Whether Bannon or others in the campaign will follow Trump to the White House is not yet known. Trump’s inner circle of executives and assistants consists mainly of people who have been with him for decades, and he has added few new people to that circle through the years. “Most of my friendships are business related because those are the only people I meet,” Trump said in an interview this spring. “I mean, I think I have a lot of friends, but they’re not friends like perhaps other people have friends, where they’re together all the time and they go out to dinner all the time. . . . I have good enemies, too, which is OK.”
Trump’s father, New York real estate developer Fred Trump, instructed his boy from a young age to devote his life to becoming a very big something. There was nothing worse, the father said, than being a “nothing.” Donald Trump took his father’s total commitment to work, his mother’s love of showmanship, and his mentor, New York lawyer Roy Cohn’s hyperaggressive approach to making deals and settling scores, and combined them into a public persona that celebrated money and ego.
Trump believed that through creative use of media, he could build an image that would inspire ordinary people to want to be like him. He believed that if he crafted that image well enough, he could become rich and powerful and ultimately rise to the highest office in the land. On Tuesday, he reached that final step in his half-century-long ascent.
What he will do with it, even he does not know. Asked earlier this year if he has spent much time preparing to actually be president, Trump admitted that his focus had been solely on the campaign. “I’m all about the hunt and the chase,” he said. “When I get something I really wanted, I sometimes lose interest in it.”
Trump has 73 days until his inauguration.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Marc Fisher